March 1, 2008

Newton Vineyards Tasting - An Evening with Dr. Su Hua Newton

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Last night I was invited by a wine merchant to attend a tasting of the wines from California's Newton Vineyard, hosted by the local supplier in a function room at the Conrad Hotel. I was honored to have been seated next to Dr. Su Hua Newton, co-founder and winemaker, and it turned out to be a real interesting evening.

I had been aware of the reputation of Newton Vineyard, although I had never actually tasted any of the wines prior to this evening. I remember driving past Sterling Vineyard in Calistoga - also founded by co-founder Peter Newton but was sold to a major corporation - with its trademark Greek architecture and the aerial trams leading up to the hilltop. And I did remember reading about Peter Newton's passing earlier this month on the Wine Spectator website. So I was quite eager to see what the wines were like.

We were served the 2004 Newton Red Label Chardonnay before dinner. This was easy to drink and nothing to write home about, but who's complaining given the price tag?

We were then seated at our tables, and Dr. Newton began to tell us about her wines as well as her winemaking philosophy.

The first wine served during dinner was the 2005 Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay. This wine was much more complex than the Red Label.

It was at this point that Dr. Newton explained that the winery is bio-dynamic, meaning that there is no use of chemicals and only natural ingredients. They clean the winery with more frequency and without the use of chemicals, use only wild yeasts, and no SO2 is used in bottling. I asked her whether she practices bio-dynamic farming the way some others - such as Mme Leroy in Burgundy - where harvests are done according to the lunar cycle. Her reply was "no" and again made a comment about this notion of bio-dynamic farming being another one of "I think, you think, I think, you think, I think"... more about this later.

To combat diseases such as phylloxera and Pierce's, young wines are planted between rows of old vines so that the young vines can lend a hand. Again, no sulfur is used in the vineyards to combat mildew. The solution is to blow-dry the clusters - an expensive and laborious process.

Being the marketer for the winery (she was a professor of marketing at USF), she naturally wastes no time at putting up credentials for her wines. The 2004 Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay was served by George Dubya at a White House state dinner in honor of the Queen last year. And supposedly it was the first time that the Queen has been seen (or caught on camera at least) to be toasting with a glass of wine instead of a glass of water.

Dr. Newton eagerly passed her Blackberry around the table, showing us the picture of the toast - along with the Queen's signature attached a the bottom. She is understandably proud of this distinction, and cracked one of her many jokes of the evening.

The Chardonnay was served to accompany the first course - warm tiger prawn salad on avocado mousse. The prawns were reasonably yummy, and the avocado was very well received.

We were next poured the 2005 Newton Red Label Claret, made in classic claret style from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The Red Label wines are the only wines which are filtered. I found this wine easy to drink, but uninteresting as filtration essentially rids the wine of character, a fact Dr. Newton readily acknowledges.

The claret accompanied the second course - porcini mushroom risotto. There was a tad more cheese in the risotto than I would have liked, and the risotto was not al dente enough for my taste. But this was probably done to better suit the Chinese palate, in all honestly.

With the third course - roasted venison loin with red currant sauce and quark spaetzli - we were poured both the 1999 and 2002 Newton Unfiltered Merlot. The venison was interestingly tasty, but not as gamey as I preferred. The spaetzle was so-so, not the best that I've had.

Now the wines...the 1999 was clearly drinking very well this evening, having 3 more years of bottle age than the 2002. Tannins were softer. The 2002 comes from a stellar vintage in California, and it has a lot more aging potential. However, it is still too young and at 15% alcohol, packs a big wallop. Too bad the 1999 isn't on sale here...

The last wine of the evening was the winery's top effort - 2002 Newton The Puzzle. This is a wine made in only great vintages, and as such it wasn't made in 2003 but re-appeared in 2004. This is made from the winery's top parcels, and the blend changes each time to create the optimal wine - hence the name. While I thought this was a good effort - big nose of sweet, wild strawberries emerged after rigorous swirling of the glass - it was still a bit too young. Needs another few years of bottle age.

The wine was accompanied by oven roasted stuffed lamb saddle "Pauillac" served with Provencale vegetables. Normally I am a big fan of lamb, and although the lamb was pink and juicy, saddle is just a bit too chewy for my taste. Dr. Newton commented on the "saturated fat" around the outside.

We ended the dinner with warm chocolate pudding with seasonal mixed berries. Boring...

My observations about Dr. Newton... She is definitely an interesting woman with a bit of a checkered background. Apparently born in pre-communist China (some references to Manchuria and no, she is no spring chicken) but fled to the UK where she was educated and earned a doctorate. She divides her time between winemaking and her charity work with medicine (she keeps saying that she is a pediatrician...)

She is clearly a very outspoken woman, not afraid to offer her opinion and knocking down anything she believes to be BS. She recounted lots of stories the whole night: telling Hugh Johnson he's full of crap when talking about the wine's "legs"; how she used to work for the house of Chanel (as a model?); how naive Coca Cola was when they bought Sterling and only made Peter Newton sign a non-compete agreement, even though she - a woman - was actually the winemaker...

One can't help but notice the chip on her shoulder. Here was a Chinese woman making wine in the US, who had to put up with racism growing up in England and dealt with snobbery in the world of wine. She was proud of what she had achieved, and wasn't afraid to stick her thumb at the world. She kept referring to certain things about the wine world as being "I think, you think, I think, you think, I think" - meaning it was all nonsense. And she is here to tell it like it is.

Something I found interesting: she kept talking about herself being a pediatrician and therefore certain things were against her principles. She also scoffed at the "saturated fat" in the lamb saddle. But a quick search on the internet showed that she spent some time on the board of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. What the *&^$?! KKD sells doughnuts deep-fried in oil. You wanna talk about fat? A bit hypocritical, non?

Well, it certainly was an entertaining evening, to say the least. I did enjoy the wines, and it was interesting to meet Dr. Newton.


Anonymous said...

I was the former USF student sitting at the table (the only gwilo in the room). I have known Su Hua for 26 years, my first class of my first day at University. There is no hypocrisy or bitterness with her, she is passionate and compassionate and is as dedicated to giving and she once was to making. I enjoyed the wines as much as the company, very nice. Cheers

Peech said...

I do not doubt Dr. Newton's willingness to give nor her passion. I am simply surprised at the KKD connection since it went against many things she scoffed at.


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